The Role of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman – An Overview
Many people will have heard of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (‘the Ombudsman’); but not everyone will be familiar with the precise nature of the Ombudsman’s role and the range of public bodies that fall within her remit. This article provides an overview addressing these issues.
The Ombudsman investigates complaints about possible maladministration in the delivery of public services. The Ombudsman’s role is to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are served by a fair and efficient public administration that is committed to accountability, openness and quality service. The list of bodies who fall within the Ombudsman’s remit includes, but is not limited to; district councils, Queen’s University Belfast, the University of Ulster, the NI Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, the NI Tourism Board, Health and Social Care trusts, primary health service providers, the Patient and Client Care Council, Invest NI, the Charity Commission for NI, the Safeguarding Board for NI and the Health and Safety Executive of NI.
Commencing an investigation
Many Ombudsman’s investigations are triggered by referrals made by members of the public, although there is also a power for the Ombudsman to commence ‘own initiative’ investigations in certain circumstances.
Upon receipt of a referral, the Ombudsman’s office will consider:
- Whether the complaint falls within the Ombudsman’s remit.
- If the local complaints procedure has been fully exhausted;
- Whether the referral has been made within the relevant time-limit (usually within six months of the conclusion of the local resolution procedure); and
- Whether any exemptions precluding an investigation apply, for example, whether the complainant has, or had, a remedy by way of proceedings in a court of law.
An important factor to bear in mind when dealing with investigations is that there is often a degree of discretion for the Ombudsman as to how to proceed. For example, there is a discretion for the Ombudsman to accept a matter for investigation even if the complainant may have a remedy in a court of law, if it would be unreasonable to expect the person aggrieved to have had resort to that remedy.
How are investigations conducted?
The Ombudsman will normally seek comments from listed authorities before deciding whether to accept a matter for investigation. It is helpful to ensure the Ombudsman is provided with all relevant information at an early stage. The submission of a structured and detailed response at this stage will often result in time savings for all parties involved. Should there be any relevant information which may preclude an investigation proceeding, listed authorities will wish to ensure that this is highlighted to the Ombudsman at this stage. Appropriately structured submissions can also assist with early identification of relevant issues and also provide an opportunity to identify any service improvements that a listed authority may have made since the events giving rise to a complaint.
When a matter is accepted for investigation, the Ombudsman will aim to complete this within 50 weeks, but if the matter is complex, then investigations may take longer. The Ombudsman’s Annual Report for 2019/20 stated that only 60% of cases were concluded within the 50 week timeframe.
The Ombudsman has a broad discretion as to how investigations are conducted, this may involve a listed authority being requested to provide responses to written queries, relevant individuals from a listed authority being asked to attend interviews with Ombudsman’s staff and/or the Ombudsman seeking independent expert advice. The listed authority, and any individual potentially subject to criticism, will be given an opportunity to comment on the complaint during the course of an investigation.
Once an investigation is complete, a draft report is sent to the relevant parties to comment on. This will set out any factual findings reached by the Ombudsman, whether there has been found to be any maladministration, whether a complainant has suffered any injustice as a result and, if so, any recommendations made by the Ombudsman.
Recommendations could be for an apology to be provided, for a policy to be amended or introduced and/or for a financial payment to be made. A financial payment is only recommended if the Ombudsman considers other recommendations would not be sufficient to “put the person affected back into a position where they would have been had there not been a negative impact on them” (for example, if a complainant has suffered unnecessary pain or distress).
It is noteworthy that investigations can be concluded at an early stage without a full investigation, if a settlement is agreed between the parties.
The Ombudsman’s website states that “approximately two thirds [of complaints] are upheld”. The Ombudsman’s Annual Report for 2019/20, reported a 37% increase in the number of complaints received from the previous year and a 119% increase over a 5 year span.
A theme common to many Ombudsman’s investigations is a breakdown in communication between a listed authority and a service user and/or failings in local complaint resolution procedures.
Dealing with complaints can be challenging, it is, however, often the case that investing the time to fully and properly investigate complaints at local level may avoid the need for a matter to be referred to the Ombudsman. Such local investigations may result in facilitating an explanation to a complainant on an evidence based basis as to why a complaint is unfounded. Alternatively, if failings are identified, this will provide an early opportunity to make an appropriate apology to those affected and put in place service improvements. It is also important to deal with complaints in a timely manner, to maintain proper records of any issues raised, and to record reasons for any decisions taken. Even if a referral to the Ombudsman is ultimately made, it will stand a listed authority in good stead if they can demonstrate that there has already been a full local investigation and any necessary service improvements promptly made.
If you do find that your organisation is subject to an Ombudsman’s investigation, it can be a long, intense and challenging process. We can help you to navigate the process by:
- Assisting with drafting responses to queries raised by the Ombudsman;
- Advising on responses to any questions or requests for further information from the Ombudsman, including as to the extent of the Ombudsman’s statutory powers to require the provision of information; and/or
- Advising on implementing any recommendations from the Ombudsman.
If you have any queries about the Ombudsman, or best practice in managing complaints more generally, please do not hesitate to contact one of the team.